Mary Dyer

Opera Synopsis by Michael Pratt

The story of Mary Dyer is the historical account of an American woman and Quaker martyr who died for religious freedom fighting religious intolerance. The Massachusetts Bay Colony of Boston during the mid-seventeenth century was ruled by Governor John Endicott, a man who ruled as a despot and was paranoiac in his intolerance of any viewpoint at variance with his own Puritanical, Old Testament, literal viewpoint. Quakers were his particular avowed enemy. Mary Dyer and her husband William, who had come from England to New England in 1635 seeking religious freedom from the Anglican Church of England, had, with a number of other colonists, left the Massachusetts Bay Colony to found the colony of Rhode Island primarily because of the restrictive religious intolerance in Boston. After a trip back to England where she met George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, Mary Dyer became an evangelistic Quaker. The story of her martyrdom is the story of her challenging Governor John Endicott and the Puritan government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who had passed a series of increasingly severe laws against Quakers and had proceeded to enforce them in exceedingly cruel fashion. Mary Dyer's fighting of these laws and her eventual death led to the repeal of such laws, the collapse of the Puritan government, and the charter of the colony of Rhode Island based on freedom of religion, the first such document in America and possibly Europe. While some historical personages and events have been combined for dramatic purposes, the events depicted are basically factual.

Act 1, Scene 1

October 11, 1658 on the Boston Common of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Puritan New England. Dominating the scene is a great elm tree beside Frog Pond. In the distance is Round Marsh. To the side is a whipping post and stocks containing a man whose arms and head are imprisoned in the stocks. A crowd gathers and derides the man who is being punished for drunkenness. Soon the crowd begins deriding Quakers, in particular Christopher Holden who recently had his ear cut off and was whipped out of the colony because he was a Quaker. Something must be done, they cry, to prevent these blasphemous Quakers from spreading their heresy. They seem to be like a plague that is growing and growing and cannot be stamped out. Harsher measures must be taken or they will simply continue their ways. The banishments, whippings, even the cutting off of ears only seems to make them more resolved. Governor John Endicott enters with exciting news. The General Court of Boston has tried in previous years to prevent Quakers from entering the Massachusetts Bay Colony by fining the captain of any vessel which brings in any Quakers the sum of 100 pounds and ordering him to return the Quakers back to where they came from or go to prison. When this proved ineffective another law was passed which mandated any Quaker entering the colony shall have his left ear cut off on the first offense, his right ear cut off on the second offense and a hole bored in his tongue with a hot iron on the third offense. Since this law was proven ineffective by Christopher Holden, Governor Endicott announces to the crowd that on this day a new law has been enacted which provides for Quaker banishment "on pain of death". If Quakers persist in entering the Massachusetts Bay Colony they will be hanged here by the great elm tree.

Act 1, Scene 2

Several months later. The interior of Mary and William Dyer's house in the colony of Rhode Island. Mary has just returned after spending several years in England. During that time William was a single parent to their six children as well as manager of an ever growing farm and one of the administrators of the colony. Mary explains how she met George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, fourteen years her junior, and what a profound impact it had on her life. "God has a mission for every man, woman and child," he said, "and each person must work to discover his or her own assignment". After many long discussions George Fox suggested to Mary that she should become a Quaker minister (called an elder). Mary was very excited about this because all of her experience had been in a Puritan society where women were held in low esteem, prevented from holding any office, voting, or taking part in any meaningful way in the decision making of the colony, church or home. Indeed, in church they were not even allowed to speak, let alone voice any opinions. She had never been able to voice her opinion about the Puritan ethic of "salvation by work". Salvation was earned by conduct, obeying the commandments, giving alms, praying, fasting, and wearing a long face. Now, as a Quaker, she knew "salvation by grace" and believed in the messages of joy, love, and service found in the New Testament. But best of all she could be an evangelist and go forth in the community, even though she was a woman, and preach the Word. Her husband, greatly alarmed, informs her of the new law recently enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They will hang any Quaker who enters the colony. He tells her that she must "on pain of death" remain only in Rhode Island and never set foot in Boston. Mary realizes that God has given her the mission to fight this abhorrent law even if it means her own death. As a Quaker with a mission she vows to go to Boston and challenge Governor Endicott and his evil laws against Quakers.

Act 2, Scene 1

October 20, 1659 in the interior of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Meeting House. The magistrates of the colony are all seated behind a table facing the people. In the center is Governor Endicott. The Governor and the magistrates are all dressed in black with stiff, forked Geneva neckbands. A Quaker by the name of William Robinson is standing before the General Court. Governor Endicott orders him to remove his hat to receive his sentence. He refuses in the name of his religion and is sentenced to death by hanging. Mary is brought before the General Court. "You will own yourself a Quaker, will you not?", Governor Endicott thunders. "I am myself to be reproachfully called so." Mary responds. "I came in obedience to the will of God." "Are you a prophetess?" asks Endicott. "I speak the words that the Lord speaks in me." The crowd becomes vocal and abusive towards Mary calling for the court to sentence her to hang. Mary addresses the court with the confidence of a woman with a purpose. She refers to the Old Testament, the basis for all Puritan laws, and makes reference to King Ahasuerus as a model for Governor Endicott and Esther as a model for herself. Then she proceeds to deliver the Quaker message of "salvation through grace" and recommends that the magistrates read their Proverbs. Ending her oration Mary shouts "God will not be mocked." Again the crowd rises up calling for Mary's death for such heresy and blasphemy. Governor Endicott is provoked almost beyond words. "We have tried several laws to keep you from amongst us. Give ear and hearken now to your sentence of death. You shall be had to the place from which you came and from thence to the gallows and there to be hanged until you are dead." Mary closes her eyes saying "The will of the Lord be done. Yea, joyfully I go." William Dyer shouts to the court "You cannot do this thing. This woman has done nothing to you". The crowd shouts him down and mocks Mary as she is led from the Meeting House.


In front of the curtain William reads from a letter he is sending to Governor Endicott pleading for a reprieve for his wife from the sentence of death. In the letter he appeals to the Governor's tender nature towards women. "Have you never had a wife of your own or ever had a tender affection to a woman?" In the letter he swears an oath that he will take Mary back to Rhode Island and she shall never return to Boston.

Act 2, Scene 2

October 27, 1659. A scaffold has been erected near the great elm tree on the Boston Common for the execution of Mary and William Robinson. Governor Endicott leads in a large and noisy procession of drummers surrounding Mary and William Robinson, who are holding hands, followed by a raucous crowd. Governor Endicott orders William Robinson to remove his hat out of respect for authority and Robinson replies "Mind you, is it not for the putting on of hats that we are being put to death?" Mary and William Robinson embrace and Robinson ascends the scaffold. "Mind the light of Christ within you, of which He testified and I am now going to seal with my blood." An incensed Governor Endicott replies "Hold thy tongue, be silent. Thou art going to die with a lie in thy mouth." As Robinson is being bound and the rope placed around his neck he replies "Now ye are made manifest. I suffer for Christ in whom I live and in whom I die." Governor Endicott orders the execution. The excited crowd begins singing a bawdy ballad about William Robinson's execution. Robinson's body is removed and Mary ascends the scaffold. Her hands and feet are bound, the rope is placed around her neck, and her face is covered by a handkerchief. The crowd is stunned when Governor Endicott, instead of ordering the execution to proceed, announces Mary's reprieve. She is to be released to her husband to return to Rhode Island. If she ever returns the execution will be immediately carried out. He further orders that she stand with rope around her neck for forty-eight hours to remind her to never return. The crowd exits continuing the bawdy ballad about William Robinson adding verses about Mary. Standing on the scaffold Mary berates her husband for his intervention and not allowing her to fulfill her destiny as a martyr in challenging the Puritan authority and its unjust laws. Over his protests she vows to return and complete the task the Lord has given her to do.

Act 3, Scene 1

May 27, 1660 in the interior of a dark and dank jail cell. Mary has returned to Boston and was immediately imprisoned. She is lying on a bed of straw writing a letter to the magistrates who have condemned her to death to persuade them of the error and evil of their ways. A window is boarded up to prevent her from communicating with anyone. "Search with the light of Christ in you, and it will show you of whom, as it has done me, and many more, who have been disobedient and deceived, as now you are. If you neither hear nor obey the Lord nor his Servants, yet will he send more of his Servants among you. My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the Truth." From outside villagers mock Mary and call for her death. William enters and tells Mary of another letter he has written to Governor Endicott to persuade him to once more give her a reprieve so that he can take Mary home to Rhode Island to be the wife he so desperately loves and the mother his children need. Mary tells him that his life and his duty are there and he must return and be both father and mother to their children. Her life and duty has been changed by God and she must remain here to bear full witness for Christ and God before the evil being done to Quakers by Governor Endicott and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


A procession to the gallows crosses in front of the curtain. Governor Endicott, drummers, and Mary followed by other marchers.

Act 3, Scene 2

June 1, 1660. A crowd has gathered at the great elm tree on the Boston Common for Mary's execution. In the crowd are many passionate Puritans eagerly awaiting the heretic's death. Also are a few supporters of Mary who are appalled that she is being put to death rather than simply being sent back to Rhode Island where she came from. Governor Endicott enters leading Mary in a procession of drummers and militant marchers who try to prevent conversation between Mary and her supporters. "Mary Dyer, don't die. Go back to Rhode Island where you might live. We beg of you, go back and live." In spite of the drummers, Mary hears these pleas and responds "Nay, I cannot go back to Rhode Island, for in obedience to the will of the Lord I came, and in His will I abide faithful to death." William enters at the end of the procession and is appalled by the crowd's mocking of his wife. Governor Endicott addresses the crowd. "She has been here before and has broken the law in coming now. It is therefore she who is guilty of her own blood." Mary is defiant and when asked if she wishes to repent, responds "Nay, I am not now to repent." William pleads to no avail for his wife's release so that he can return with her to Rhode Island vowing never to return. After more harassment from the crowd Mary, needing no assistance, mounts the scaffold. A handkerchief is placed over her face as she is hanged. The crowd stands paralyzed in silence until a breeze gently billows out Mary's skirt. Governor Endicott in amusement utters "She hangs like a flag." The crowd picks up the phrase in chant and gleefully exits to the strains "She hangs like a flag for others to take example from." The curtain slowly descends on a stage empty except for Mary's hanging body and William kneeling, weeping at her feet. The crowd can be heard in the distance chanting "She hangs like a flag."

Probable Lineage of Mary Dyer When Queen Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, the throne passed to James I, descendant of Henry VII and Mary, Queen of Scots. Also descending from Henry and Mary was King James' first cousin Arabella Stuart. King James felt his claim to the throne was in jeopardy from his cousin Arabella, even more so when she reinforced her claim to the throne by marrying William Seymour, yet another cousin and descendant of Henry VII through Mary, Duchess of Suffolk. When Arabella and William had a daughter in 1611, King James had them sent to the Tower of London where Arabella eventually died while William escaped to France. The infant girl, never found by King James, was placed in the care of Arabella's lady-in-waiting Mary Dyer, who gave the infant her own name. When Mary Dyer, the daughter of Arabella Stuart and lineal descendant of Henry VII, reached the age of twenty-two, she married her cousin William Dyer.

In 1635 they fled to New England. When Mary Dyer was hanged on the Boston Common in 1660 at the age of forty-nine because she was a Quaker, she became the first and only woman in America to die for her Quaker beliefs. History regards the Puritans as having fled England in pursuit of religious freedom, but the Puritan idea of religious freedom in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the seventeenth century was a cruel and total repression of any idea or belief at variance with the strict Puritan government. Witness the cutting off of ears, cruel whipping while being dragged from village to village behind a cart, and the execution by hanging of dissidents like Mary Dyer and others. Over 300 years later the State of Massachusetts finally acknowledged Mary Dyer's martyrdom and placed a statue of her in front of the State House on Beacon Hill in Boston.